After twelve days in Peru, my head is jam-packed with stories about ancient wars, grotesque rituals, powerful leaders, and wondrous monuments. Many of these stories were provided by guides at the various sites I explored in the center of the country: Lima, the Sacred Valley, and (of course) Machu Picchu.
The Inca were the great rulers of Peru, and their empire extended into the territory of neighboring countries such as Ecuador and Argentina. Though the empire reached its height under emperor Pachactui in the 15th century, it soon fell to the Spanish conquistadors.
Among the stories I can’t forget is the tale of Ollantay, best friend of Pachacuti. When Pachacuti refused to allow his sister to marry Ollantay, the jilted warrior abducted her and fled to the fortress-city Ollantaytambo, where he launched a war against his best friend for control of the empire. He failed, but was allowed to keep his life due to the fact that the princess was already with child.
Nor can I forget one tour guide’s story of how the Inca hid Machu Picchu from the Spanish conquistadors. Although their empire was fragmented, at war with both itself and the Spanish, the major Inca factions were able to agree that Machu Picchu could not fall into Spanish hands. Using the Spaniards’ lust for gold against them, the Inca led the conquistadors into a near-impassable valley where they became stuck for forty years, thus allowing the jungle enough time to completely cover their magnificent mountain city.
Even the eventual discovery of Machu Picchu has its own colorful story.
American archeologist Hiram Bingham—the man who inspired the character of Indiana Jones, as a matter of fact—had been searching for the lost Inca city for years. On the last day of his expedition, almost totally out of money, Bingham arrived in a small farming community where he believed several ancient Inca artifacts had originated. He was disappointed to find what he thought were just a few old Inca ruins—the outskirts, it later turned out, of Machu Picchu.
With the sunlight fading, a dejected Bingham turned around to go home. It was then a young child, Pablito, came running out of the jungle imploring Bingham to wait. He told Bingham that he knew of some stupendous ruins nearby. Bingham followed reluctantly, but his disappointment soon transformed into awe when he beheld the remains of a temple complex overgrown with jungle. In the last of the sunlight, Bingham was able to take enough photographs of the temple to receive a massive grant from Yale University. He returned with an expedition the following year. (Also documented was Bingham’s egotistical attempt to destroy graffiti left by western explorers a few years before he arrived, evidence carved in stone proving that Bingham had not, in fact, discovered Machu Picchu. Scholars have since been able to find a number of references to Machu Picchu in earlier maps and surveys; it took Bingham’s association with Yale University and an archeology conference in Washington, D.C., to raise Machu Picchu to the world’s attention.)
Travel inspires me—if it’s not direct personal experience, it’s because the frequent history lessons remind me of the young culture I spring from here in the United States.
The greatest empires of the Americas—the Aztec, Maya, and the Inca—were born in Central and South America. Although the northern Native Americans did well, they didn’t leave wonders of the world behind like Machu Picchu and Chichen Itza.
Maybe it’s time to write a fantasy novel.
I’m certainly inspired to, given how vivid so much of the Inca history and lifestyle seems to me now…